This is why I do what I do

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Image above: Little Bang from northern Vietnam – whose journey with eye cancer I follow in my short documentary “Little Bang’s New Eye”.

I realised a few years ago I’m lucky I discovered I have a passion. It may have been realised a little later in life but when it happened, it happened with a bang! (no pun intended in relation to the title of my film:)

I remember the day I decided I would give up my corporate career to become a documentary filmmaker. It was the end of 2006 and I wanted to make a documentary about Tibet for release just before the upcoming Beijing Olympics. I wanted to (and I did) use that documentary to help shed light on the Tibetan struggle since Chinese occupation in 1949.

That passion has continued and has been a solid part of my filmmaking work since.

Last week, I had the first public screening of my short documentary “Little Bang’s New Eye” to a packed theatre as part of a film fundraiser to help raise funds for essential equipment for Sight For All who work in developing countries delivering eye health care. My short film follows the story of a little Hmong girl from Northern Vietnam and her journey with retinoblastoma – a deadly form of eye cancer. Within that story, is another story of how the life of Bang and her older sister Vang, were likely saved because of the work of Sight For All.

This film was a labour of love. I offered my time and resources over two filming trips in 2016 and 2017. Those trips were made possible with the support of Sight For All. A week after returning home having completed the first filming trip in 2016, I was diagnosed with a back injury and in excruciating pain, was unable to work for a couple of months. Fortunately, this improved and in 2017 I was able to return for a second filming trip.

After a screening last Sunday to a packed theatre as part of a film fundraiser, “Little Bang’s New Eye” is now being entered into a number of international film festivals. The hope is that audiences around the world will have a chance to learn about life for some children (and their families) in developing countries, the work of organisations like Sight For All and the chance to be grateful for the health care we have.

This is why I love documentary films. They can educate and inspire and motivate. They give us the opportunity to learn and discover and sometimes just to appreciate what we have.

This is why I do what I do.

A Letter from John Pilger

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On Thursday this week, I delivered a breakout presentation at the YWCA’s She Leads Conference in Adelaide. The theme was “Owning Your Change”.

I spoke about how I changed my career from fishing to film and the journey and the lessons learned in between.

This morning, I remembered a handwritten note I received from John Pilger back in 2001 in response to a letter I’d written to him asking if I could work for him. I was about to change from one career to another and I wanted to be the type of investigative journalist that exposed social ills, like John Pilger.

In the note, John Pilger wrote:

“Dear Lara,

Thanks for your excellent letter – it reminded me of when I wrote to people in London from Sydney at your age. Alas, I can’t help; I don’t employ anyone. My TV company support a small team, and we all make the coffee! I’m sorry.

I wish you every success. I have a feeling you’ll go far! All good wishes.

John Pilger.

So, while I’m not the investigative journalist like John Pilger, I still admire him greatly. And that note was part of a train of events that lead me to becoming a purpose-driven filmmaker.

Thank you John !

Collaborative filmmaking. I love it when everyone gets involved.

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Something that’s always been important to me in my work is being able to involve those around me in the filmmaking process.

Recently, I was on assignment in Bougainville in the Pacific, working with CUFA Project Officers travelling to a number of villages to interview people who have participated in and experienced the impacts of CUFA’s projects that focus on giving young people much needed skills in financial literacy, employment skills, micro-enterprise development skills and more.

I could see how keen a couple of the project officers were about the camera, so with some on-the-job training and a lot of enthusiasm, they showed their skills in the field behind the camera.

People talk about Participatory Video, which is something else I’m really passionate about, but I think it’s also about providing opportunities for participation (and new skills) with the people I work with in the field. Giving them the chance to get behind the camera or work with audio.

I love being able to do this as part of my job. Collaborating and sharing what I’ve learnt with those around me is just part of my approach to what I do.

Impact and Evaluation Videos – how decision makers and stakeholders can see what’s happening on the ground.

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I was recently in Cambodia on assignment for CUFA. CUFA is an international development agency whose aim is to combat poverty across the Asia-Pacific region. Their core programs have a focus on “economic, education, enterprise and employment activities, all of which enable people to lift themselves out of poverty and strengthen communities”.

It wasn’t the first time I’d worked with CUFA and again, I saw firsthand the real results they’re achieving with their excellent approach.

The assignment involved interviewing a number of Cambodians from Poipet and Phnom Penh who had been resettled as part of an ADB resettlement program. People spoke to us openly about their challenges and difficulties but also about the positive aspects of their resettlement. I found it fascinating to hear people’s perspectives and it really made me think about all the social and logistical challenges that appear when resettling hundreds of people.

The final video will provide an evaluation tool demonstrating the impact of the resettlement project from the perspective of the people directly involved.

And this is why I love using video to demonstrate impact and evaluation. It’s engaging, it’s about creating connections through personal stories and it provides the people making decisions with a point of view and possibly a new understanding many of them would probably rarely get to experience.

Above image:  One of the community members who spoke to camera about her experiences with the resettlement scheme.

Animation. Art. Alyawarr Stories. Working with some amazing women from central Australia on my current project.

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In October last year, I spent time with a handful of talented women artists from the remote community of Ampilatwatja in central Australia. I’ve been going to Ampilatwatja since 2010 when I made my first trip out there to start work on an independent documentary about Alyawarr elder Banjo Morton and the walk off he was involved in back in 1949. I discovered it was the first walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen in the Northern Territory. Banjo and a few other stockmen walked off from the Lake Nash Cattle Station where they were employed, demanding wages instead of rations.

This time, in 2016, I’m producing a series of short videos that show each of the artists working on a painting from start to finish that will incorporate animation. The animation is being produced by Karu-Karu studio.

Most of the artists paint Arreth, which translates to ‘strong bush medicine’, demonstrating a deep connection to country. For the Alyawarr people, their land has provided and sustained for generations. The paintings pay homage to the significance and use of traditional bush medicine, allowing an insight into their community. The Alyawarr people have lived in this part of Australia for hundreds of thousands of years.

As part of this project, we spent a day outside of the community where the women showed me a variety of bush medicine plants and explained their uses and which I filmed. I’m now cutting this into a 12 minute film which will be screened on Indigenous Community TV once complete.

I’m lucky to be able to work with these wonderful artists who have shared their stories and talent with my camera. I’m looking forward to finishing the video series and to showing them to the world !

To find out more about the artists from Ampilatwatja and their work, click here.

The above image shows artists Margaret Kemarre Ross (left) and Beverly Pula Luck who are two of the artists involved in the project.

How an email turned into a lifelong friendship

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In 2007, I embarked on a daunting but exciting journey to make my first feature documentary. I was driven by a desire to start a new career that would allow me to make films to make people think.

If you’ve ever embarked on a project with no funding before, you know how important it is to find ways to keep your costs down. One way I did this was to look for product sponsors. One of those has now, nine years later, turned into what I know will be a lifelong friendship.

At the start of my documentary journey in 2007, I had to make various filming trips to India and Tibet and I needed appropriate clothing. I went into a shop in Adelaide to look for travel-wear clothes only to find, as usual, everything made in China. This, I thought, was quite ironic given the documentary I was making began from the point of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949. Eventually, in one shop I noticed a travel wear brand called Earth Sea Sky whose clothing was made in New Zealand. My research later revealed that the company was family owned, ethical and sustainable. Just the type of company for me!

Months after sending my email to Earth Sea Sky telling them about my plans to make the film and how I was looking for product sponsors, and still not having received a response, I relegated the email to the dustbin of email history. One day however, not so long after this, I received an apologetic response from the owner of Earth Sea Sky, David Ellis.

That email, in 2007, was followed by many other emails, the provision of clothing for not only my Tibet documentary but subsequent work around the world, and personal meetings, catch ups for dinner and coffee with David and his wonderful wife Jane. Our visits and communication continue to this day and I consider them among my very good friends.

Back in 2007, their support felt almost miraculous. Here I was – an unknown, making my first ever feature documentary and they believed in me. The documentary was finished as planned in time for screenings just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was even acquired for purchase by TV New Zealand as well as Czech Television. Screenings were held in theatres across Australia, NZ, Asia and Europe.

I love everything about Earth Sea Sky. The clothing they make, how they make it, their business principles and ethics, their stance towards sustainability, their integrity. Most of all, I love the fact that they are a family run business who really believe in the quality products they make.

Thank you David and Jane – for not only your ongoing support for my work but for your commitment to a business that is ethical, sustainable, professional, personal and so wonderfully family run.

Working with Relief International on their Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project

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Earlier this year I was in Bangladesh working with Relief International to make a short video about their Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project.

I got to experience the incredible Sundarbans which is a massive stretch across southern Bangladesh of the largest saltwater mangrove forest in the world. It’s also home to the Bengali tiger. I also got to see first hand the incredible impact that RI’s Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project is having.

The project was designed to provide local communities with an alternative economy so that they could reduce their dependence on the natural resources of the Sundarbans. To do this, RI established pilot ecotourism sites that bring tourists to the area and provide community members with various employment roles and incomes.

It was a challenging mission. An unscripted video that involved extensive travel to remote locations over a short period of time but the aim was to show, as authentically as possible, how the project has positively impacted. It was also an opportunity, for me, to meet some of the most warm hearted and wonderful people of Bangaldesh and to work with the dedicated team of RI Bangladesh.

Congratulations Relief International Bangladesh ! It’s a brilliant project with real outcomes providing benefits on many levels.

Languages and documentaries – celebrating diversity and telling stories.

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I was raised in Australia by Italian migrants. The first language I spoke, until I went to school at the age of 5, wasn’t the native language of Australia but the native language of my parents. My parents gave me a lifelong appreciation for languages, their intricacies and nuances and a love of the sound of different languages.

A lot of the work I do in my documentary production is working with people for whom English is either a second language or who don’t speak English at all. I interview them, with a translator, in their native language and then translate and subtitle their words. Of course, it’s always a tricky process making sure that the integrity of someone’s words in their language is not lost in the translation and it’s a time consuming process to get this right but it’s also very rewarding.

I’ve worked with languages from the Pacific, Asia, China, Tibet and across Australia. In Australia, prior to colonisation, there were around 250 different languages spoken by the many Aboriginal tribes across the land. At the beginning of the 21st century, those numbers have declined to around 150 and around 13 of them are highly endangered.

An independent documentary I’ve been working on tells the story of Alyawarr elder Banjo Morton from central Australia. Banjo and a small handful of other Aboriginal stockmen who walked off from their place of employment in 1949 demanding wages instead of rations. My research uncovered it was the first time in the Northern Territory that Aboriginal stockmen did this. It’s a piece of history that few in Australia know about. As part of this project, I’ve been fortunate to spend time in Banjo’s remote community of Ampilatwatja – about 350 km North East of Alice Springs in Australia’s centre. Here, I’ve been working with Banjo’s language – Alyawarr (pronounced “alyawarra”) which is a language spoken every day by 1500 people in Central Australia. Most speakers live North East of Alice Springs, spreading over the Queensland border.

I’m lucky that I get to experience the richness of diverse languages and the people who speak them, in my work. As the world moves faster and faster and with this comes the challenges of modern life, I think languages need to be celebrated and cherished. Documentaries that incorporate languages other than English are a great way to not only tell those particular stories but also a great way to record those languages forever.

Why simple things are the best things. (Development documentaries can show the power of simplicity…and that’s why I love making them)

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I think simple things are the best. It’s cliche, I know but in this chaotic world of ours, it’s a thought that often gets lost.

Last year I worked with the UNDP Solomon Islands SWoCK Project team to produce a series of videos demonstrating the impact of their SWoCK Project.

In Pidgin, SWoCK stands for Strongem Waka lo Community for Kaikai which translates roughly into Developing Resilience in Agriculture and Food Security. It was a project with simple objectives – and great impact. The Solomon Islands, like many Pacific Island nations, is highly susceptible to the effects of climate change and in particular rising sea levels. It’s a serious concern for the many communities scattered along the coastlines and elsewhere.

As part of our travels, we interviewed John Thomas from the small community of Rade Aekoa. John and his family are dependent on the range of vegetables that John grows for their food. The SWoCK Project helped John expand his range of vegetables as well as provide infrastructure for his chickens whose manure fertilises his garden.

Across the Solomon Islands, the dedicated team of the SWoCK Project worked closely with a number of communities providing support (ranging from growing workshops to food banking, seed planting and more) and simple infrastructure (such as chicken coops and water tanks) to assist communities develop resilience to climate change by maintaining their own food supplies.

While the SWoCK Project had a number of simple aims, they were aims that produced great results that will have great impact. It’s projects, and people, like SWoCK and farmer John Thomas who remind us that the simple things can be the most important.

Especially as we all struggle with the demands and challenges of our daily lives in this often crazy world.

It doesn’t end with the film – how I add value to my filmmaking.

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Ever since I started my new career as a documentary filmmaker in 2007 making my first ever film which was a feature documentary that ended up on television and in international film festivals, I’ve always had a strong sense of commitment to whatever project I work on that doesn’t end with just the film or films I produce.

I’m passionate about raising awareness and sharing my experiences that can extend beyond the films I make.

Earlier this year I was in Bangladesh working for Relief International making a short documentary about a really great project they’re running called the Sundarbans Mangrove Ecotourism Project. The project is all about creating sustainability in an area that is the largest saltwater mangrove ecosystem on earth but also about providing sustainable alternative livelihoods for local communities who have traditionally depended on the surrounding natural resources.

I was also in Vietnam working on a short documentary for the Australian based charity Sight For All who are filling a void in specialised eye health care in developing countries. For both of these projects, I posted a series of Instagram photos and stories about the projects and the making of the documentaries, a series of blog articles that spanned my website, LinkedIn, Twitter,  Facebook and other places.

Telling the stories about the organisations and projects I work for are just as important to me as making their documentaries. It means I get to share my own unique personal experiences but also help to further demonstrate the impact they’re making. That’s why, for me, it never just ends with the films I make.